Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2035
In a succession of novels set primarily in the United Kingdom during the last decades of the twentieth century, Ian McEwan has explored the disorder and fragmentation of a society in which his characters are grasping for some sort of value or direction to give their lives a semblance of meaning, or at least make them tolerable. As Michael Adams has astutely observed, all of McEwan’s novels are, to some extent, a “meditation on alienation,” his protagonists depicted in a struggle with political and psychological forces that seem to be expressions of the darker sides of human behavior. Inexplicable evil, random violence, casual cruelty, and pointless endeavors plague people who are essentially decent but often unsure of how to proceed in a world where chaos and stupidity seem to be in ascendance. Because of his insertion of scenes so grotesquely bizarre that they are unavoidably amusing, McEwan’s books have tended to balance a dark vision of society with a comic stance that alleviates the grim circumstances they describe, and his main characters have often found some degree of surcease from their difficulties. Jeremy, the narrator of Black Dogs(1992), the novel preceding Enduring Love, states that there is “the possibility of love transforming and redeeming life.” This is a position that McEwan supports but one which is not examined in much detail in his other work. In Enduring Love, he has not only examined and developed it in depth but has also gone further to consider how “the possibility of love” can be both life-enhancing and dangerously lethal, approaching a familiar subject and sentiment with such powers of invention that its ultimate power is renewed and revealed again.
Utilizing the kind of unusual situation that has become one of the distinctive elements of his writing, McEwan begins the novel with a devastating incident that completely unsettles the pleasant, comfortable, moderately fulfilling life of Joe Rose, a freelance writer specializing in explaining complex scientific phenomena in journals and on television programs. Rose is in his early forties, a “large, clumsy, balding fellow,” as he describes himself, who is aptly and affectionately seen as “the world’s most complicated simpleton” by his wife of seven years, Clarissa Mellon. Her work as a lecturer in literature at a mediocre university is moderately rewarding, and although they are childless because of a botched surgical procedure in Clarissa’s youth, their relationship has an affirmative intimacy and mutual dependence that has enabled both of them to feel generally grateful and satisfied most of the time. On the way to a picnic in the lush English countryside of Chiltern Hills, they see a balloon with a small child moving out of control, and Joe joins several other bystanders in an attempt to anchor the carriage to the ground. A sudden wind shift pulls the balloon out of their grasp, and as the men are forced to relinquish their grip, one person holds onto the mooring rope. He is carried aloft and falls to his death. The horror of this is sufficient to leave Joe and Clarissa severely shaken—“I’ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man,” Joe says—but what takes it beyond “mere tragedy” is that one of the other bystanders who ran to help, Jed Parry, has also experienced a kind of fall. He has become, in the instant of their meeting, totally and completely in love with Joe, in spite of Joe’s utter displeasure with Jed’s fervent protestation of affection.
Joe and Clarissa have established a kind of personal fortress to keep the harshness of life in England at the end of the twentieth century at a safe remove. Their life together is a place of retreat and restoration, providing protection against a world where illness, argument, petty aggravation, and pervasive ugliness are rampant. Most of their friends are separated or divorced, Clarissa’s school is administered by uneducated oafs, Joe is troubled by his career decision to forsake pure science for reductive popularizing, and he is tormented by guilt since he feels that he and the others could have held onto the balloon’s rope and saved the man whose heroic efforts were not only deadly but also unnecessary, as the balloon with the boy eventually landed safely. He and Clarissa regard the balloon tragedy as a trial and expect to help each other through the crisis.
This is one aspect of the “enduring love” that the title proposes. Jed’s sudden declaration of ardor, however, compounds the equation and compels Joe to consider the most basic components of a structure he has previously enjoyed without much introspection. This, in itself, is not necessarily unpleasant because of his inclination for analytical reflection. Jed’s wild devotion, though, cannot be contained by the methods of rational inquiry to which Joe is accustomed.
Jed is in his late twenties, affluent, idle, intelligent, and a religious zealot. Nothing that Joe does or says has any affect on “Jed Parry’s love and pity.” No matter how strenuously he tries to convince Jed that affection is neither returned nor in any way welcome, Jed finds a way to interpret everything as a secret signal or a type of lover’s game. This is another version of enduring love—a frightening kind of fixation that would be overwhelming even if reciprocated and that is, in Joe’s case, an introduction to the irrational that his entire life has worked to contain. For McEwan, it also represents one of the sources of the modern world’s malaise. The forces of evil that are present in all his work are traced inEnduring Love to one of their originating points in the all-consuming selfishness of a person who is totally convinced that they are justified in their actions and that nothing anyone else does or says ultimately matters much. Jed claims to be guided by a vision of God, but he is actually a devilish monster of self-regard, oblivious to the claims and needs of others. His love is a form of narcissism, directed inward, and his expressions of devotion for Joe are actually designed to glorify his conception of himself.
Jed is a striking and frightening character but is not especially sympathetic—aside from his obvious pain and yearning—partly because his evangelical zeal makes it useless to try to alter his convictions and partly because the narrative consciousness of Enduring Love is located very specifically within Joe’s perspective. McEwan has made Joe a convincing, trustworthy companion as well as an appealing, decent man so that it seems natural to assume and support his position. In addition to his care and concern for other people—as exemplified by his real interest in Clarissa’s well-being beyond her capacity to cherish him—his ease and pleasure in the company of children, and his readiness to assist people in peril or pain, his mental processes are quite captivating to the degree that Enduring Love intermingles the theme of romantic love with issues more conventionally found in what has been called a “novel of ideas.”
Joe is keenly aware of his own emotional and psychological responses to things as they occur and also relishes what he calls “the desired state, the high-walled infinite prison of directed thought.” McEwan uses theories of evolutionary biology and particle physics to create metaphors for Joe’s way of seeing, and the clarity with which the author handles theories of scientific inquiry parallels Joe’s ability to present complex issues in contemporary science to the layman. As engaging as Joe’s musing may be as an impressive act of mind, though, his life becomes really gripping when he finds that he must find new strategies for “fending off mad, wild, unpredictable forces.”
By placing this relatively ordinary, reasonable man in a situation of tremendous stress, McEwan is able to introduce some scenes of spectacular action that unleash a surge of immense energy into the flow of the narrative. The balloon disaster is only the first of several such episodes, including an attempted assassination in a restaurant, a hilarious sojourn into a sinister posthippie commune to purchase a gun with which Joe hopes to defend himself, and a final confrontation with Jed, who has made Clarissa a hostage to his desires. Joe is somewhat out of his element in each case and illustrates some of the essential strengths of his character by acting with sense and resolution when no clear course is apparent. The fact that none of these confrontations has a really satisfactory outcome reinforces their plausibility while not lessening their impact, another example of the relish that McEwan has previously shown in his other work for graphic descriptions of excessive violence.
In Enduring Love, however, McEwan relies less on the spectacular incident than in any of his other books. The conclusion is an appropriate continuation of the changes that have occurred in Joe and Clarissa’s lives and suggests that any confidence in stasis is illusionary, that the condition of existence in the modern world (and perhaps at any time in human history) is one of continuous alteration.
Joe’s pattern of reflection on the circumstances of his life is linked to his (and McEwan’s) consideration of the necessity for a coherent narrative to make sense of a shifting, elusive “reality.” As Joe says, “What I liked here was how the power and attractions of narrative had clouded judgment,” even as he recognizes that “by any standards of scientific inquiry, the story, however charming, was nonsense.” The importance of a scientific method (as opposed to the fundamentalist beliefs of Jed) is emphasized throughout the novel, but it is juxtaposed with a growing acceptance of the importance of romantic intuition. No single, rigid stratagem is sufficient for dealing with the world, and the incompatibility of differing views of various events is made evident by the letters from Jed and from Clarissa that McEwan includes, by the results of police investigations, and by the placement of several appendices after the close of the narrative in which McEwan extensively notes the “scholarship” devoted to the psychic syndrome afflicting Jed. Whether the citations are as much the product of McEwan’s imagination as Jed’s letters (and the remainder of the novel), or whether they are actual studies of a particular pathology is left to the reader to determine by electronic research or some other means of confirmation, should this be required to satisfy someone’s curiosity. More significantly, the amalgam of the imaginative and the determinable reinforces one of McEwan’s central themes and leads toward his primary point that the enduring values of human affairs—especially the “possibility of love”—are what makes life bearable.
As critics such as Michael Adams have noted, McEwan has “long been considered one of the best of the English novelists born after World War II, but his first three novels and two collections of short stories have not brought him the recognition he deserved.” The Comfort of Strangers was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981, and The Child in Time (1987) was the winner of the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award.Black Dogs was also short-listed for the Booker Prize and reached a wider audience both in Great Britain and the United States than his other work. Enduring Love has been promoted by his publishers as “the finest novel Ian McEwan has written in his remarkable career,” and while this is a typical claim, initial response has been enthusiastic, as indicated by A. O. Scott’s review, which describes the book as something like “Fatal Attraction with a screenplay by [Ludwig] Wittgenstein” and asserts, “It holds in place a varied architecture of philosophical speculation and closely rendered human situations. Plus a crazy stalker and some guns. What’s not to love?”
Sources for Further Study
Artforum. XXXVI, March, 1998, p. S20.
Commonweal. CXXV, May 8, 1998, p. 24.
JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association. CCLXXIX, June 10, 1998, p. 1837.
Library Journal. CXXII, November 1, 1998, p. 116.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 25, 1998, p. 2.
Nature. CCCXCI, February 12, 1998, p. 654.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, January 25, 1998, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 27, 1997, p. 50.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 12, 1997, p. 12.
The Washington Post. January 28, 1998, p. D2.
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